Bintel Brief: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach Tackles a Conversion Conundrum
Dear Rabbi Boteach,
Thirty-plus years ago I converted to Judaism; this has been one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.
I have a troubled relationship with my brother and his wife; religion is among the many differences my wife and I have with them. We’ve reached a reasonable, arm’s-length relationship. For business reasons my brother and sister-in-law moved halfway across the country; their son still lives in the same city with us. A few years ago my nephew married. Our new niece comes from an intensely family-oriented culture; because we live in the same city, they have initiated a close relationship with my wife and me. We have no children of our own, so our new relationship has been an unexpected joy for us. My wife and our niece have become particularly close.
Recently our niece announced that if they have children, they want to raise the children as Jews. I felt honored, humbled and horrified at this. This seems to be more a hypothetical than a real prospect, but one can never tell.
How should we react? I am extremely honored that they find our religion compelling, but this brings a whole new meaning to “converting for the sake of the children,” since neither of them have any connection to Judaism other than through us. I have told my niece that if she wants to raise the children as Jews, she would have to convert and make a Jewish home. No rabbi would convert a kid with no Jewish heritage living in a non-Jewish home. She has indicated that that would be acceptable, but I don’t see any serious interest or movement in that direction.
If they found our religion compelling for themselves, I would be extremely pleased. But it seems almost as if raising a hypothetical child as Jewish would be a way to get us to share in parental duties, and to give their child access to a culture that they admire but show no great interest in for themselves. If they were to go through with this, it would not be a decision accepted with any joy by my brother and sister-in-law. I’m sure they would see this as our appropriating their son and his family.
I should add that we have not been proselytizing. They see that we go to shul most Saturday mornings, they have come to two of our Seders, she has come to shul with us once to see my wife leyn Torah. But we have never indicated to them that they would be more precious to us if they were Jewish.
Should we actively discourage them from this notion? Or should we just hope the issue never arises?
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach replies:
What I would do is bring a rabbi into the mix. The fact is that even if they wanted to convert, it would have to be done through a rabbi and a beit din anyway. So it’s a good idea to send your niece to speak to one now to explore her options and get more information on the conversion process.
I would not worry about your brother and sister-in-law feeling that you are appropriating their kids and grandkids. If they subject comes up, just be very straightforward with them. Tell them you never made any conscious effort whatsoever to try and influence them to be Jewish. Rather, it seems to be their decision alone.
The same applies to how you should handle your relationship with your niece and her kids. I would not change anything you’re doing. I would be totally natural. Don’t tilt toward involving them more in Judaism, and don’t tilt toward pushing them away. Let it be their decision as to whether they draw closer or move away. Your introducing them to a rabbi is in order to give them more information, nothing more.
I have written a great deal about exposing non-Jews to Judaism. As you know, we Jews actively discourage conversion because we do not believe that we have an exclusive copyright on truth. Less so do we believe that one upgrades one’s existence by becoming a Jew.
Having said all this, we certainly believe that our religion has great blessings to bestow on an individual who chooses to embrace it, as you yourself have discovered, and for those who have no affiliation to a religion and want to explore Judaism, we do make ourselves available to have them learn more about the Jewish faith. That is what you are doing, and that is what you should continue to do, without actively proselytizing.
I wish you every blessing.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the host of The Learning Channel’s “Shalom in the Home” and the author of numerous books, including “Kosher Sex,” “Kosher Adultery,” “Dating Secrets of the Ten Commandments” and “Judaism for Everyone.”